Game Review - by James Allen
Is there more of a venerable franchise in real time strategy gaming than Westwood Studios (don't answer: it's rhetorical)? The Command and Conquer series of games has dominated the RTS genre and planted the seeds that so many cheap knock-offs have tried to uproot. The creators of Red Alert 2 (which I was completely disappointed in) bring Emperor: Battle for Dune, a 3D RTS based in (not surprising) the Dune universe (it's that movie with all the sand). Will Emperor be better than The Simpsons: The Complete First Season? Of course not, but it's one heck of a game, dude.
We're all familiar with the plan by now: single player campaign, skirmish mode, and multiplayer. The game features three warring factions: the Atreides, Harkonnen, and Ordos. All of the sides have their specific units with their own strengths and weaknesses, which is a wonderful balancing act put in place by the developers. I liked the single player campaign: it is very reminiscent of Shogun: Total War, in that you choose which adjacent territory to invade, and whether to defend against an invasion. It gives a slight measure of freedom, which we just never see in the real time strategy et in campaign mode, although there are some scripted, mandatory missions you must undertake. Skirmish mode (always my favorite) consists of quick fights against any number of AI opponents, the difficulty of which can range from cakewalk to most difficult. Multiplayer games have the same options, including which house to align with, the initial income, and much more. It's become so familiar by this point, that the polished features only lack a map editor (or even a random map generator). That's too bad, but there are enough maps to make it interesting for quite a while.
The sound is pretty standard fare for Westwood games. All of the units have one or two acknowledgement responses, and the battles (for Dune?) are accompanied by appropriate explosions, yelps, and artillery firing. The sound isn't horrible in the same sense as the commentary in Madden 2002 (thank goodness!), but, equally, there isn't anything to write home about (like you were going to write home about a computer game….right?). The sound of Emperor: Battle for Dune supports surrounding elements without distracting attention away with overall depravity.
The "classic" Westwood formula of base building, resource gathering, unit creation, and butt-kicking is in full force in Emperor: Battle for Dune. Each of the three houses have the same buildings for the most part, each skinned with different textures to reflect their personal likes and dislikes. Your construction yard is the base of operations, your power source is the windtrap, barracks for troops, factories for tanks, hangers for planes. An interesting twist (which picks up the speed of the game) is the quick resource collecting of spice. Your refinery is delivered with the precious mineral by harvesters, but they are transported quickly to and from the fields of collection by flying machines called carryalls. Plus, you can construct more platforms for spice upload on the same refinery, which also supplies you with another harvester and carryall. Suffice to say, this makes resource gathering quick and painless. The outpost provides radar coverage to spot enemy units, and the starport allows the purchase of units for low, low prices, rather than wasting precious manufacturing time. The "specialized" buildings are just the different gun turrets each side uses, so switching between the different houses is trouble-free. As I stated earlier, you can upgrade any of your buildings, which usually results in the ability to manufacture more advanced units. Plus, you can be aligned with sub-houses, which produce some more units for you. Selecting appropriate complements to your own offense is important to a successful outcome.
The units themselves are very different between houses, and the balancing that went into them is very well done. Depending on your playing style, you'll find that one of the three sides tailors to your individual desires. The units range from infantry to tanks to planes, all of which have different offensive capabilities and defensive ability. All of the buildings and units are rendered in full 3D, and the x, y, AND z axes are very well rendered in Emperor, and, more importantly, the game is very easy to navigate. Too often I've seen a poor implementation of the 3D camera position, which just tends to confuse the player rather than using 3D to enhance the experience. Emperor: Battle of Dune is the most painless use of 3D I've seen, and mostly because the game is seen from the classic RTS 2D perspective, although you can zoom, rotate, and move your viewpoint. A very smart decision was made in zooming: as you close in on the landscape, your camera pitch raises up so that you can actually see what's going on. Leaving the tilt of the camera out of the control of the user makes zooming in and out a refreshingly painless process, and I'm especially thankful for that.
The last couple of innovations (which are unrelated, but I waited until now to address them) are the giant sandworms and retreating. You can construct your base on any area of solid rock, because underneath the tranquil sand landscapes lies sandworms, which instantly destroy any unit which it consumes. This doesn't completely alter the course of a battle, but it is a neat addition that will frustrate you (in a good way) more than once. Lastly, in single player campaigns, you are given the option to retreat from an area. Why is this useful? Well, you surviving units are carried over between battles, and their experience points can mean the difference among victory and defeat. To make a long story short (too late), Emperor finally perfects the Westwood RTS formula. About time!
Holy detail, Batman! Westwood makes the transition to 3D with amazing results. These graphics are one hundred times better than those found in Red Alert 2, although I may be underestimating. The amount of detail on the units and buildings is absolutely amazing. When comparing this to the slow crappiness of Steel Soldiers, it's even more impressive. Some of the troops have flashlights on the end of their rifles. That pretty much gives you a good idea about how much quality assurance went into the beautiful pictures; and the explosions and nothing to sneeze at, too. Plus, the fire effects are very well done. Man, the graphics are so great and smooth and awesome! Yeah!
Emperor: Battle for Dune is the game that Red Alert 2 should have been. Westwood has finally perfected their real time strategy approach to gaming. The same old formula is still used, but I think it's still a great game. The fantastic graphics, effective use of 3D, and gameplay adds up to a compelling title that should be on the list of any real time strategy gamer. Now, we can expect that Red Alert 2 will probably outsell this title (because of the history of the C&C series), but Emperor is the better game. Too bad most people will miss it.